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June 23, 2011

It Will Happen to You…

Patricia A. Kelly

An important, no, universal event, something that happens all around, the world, and to everyone else. In a riddle from the ancient text the Mahabharata, the hero Yudhishthira, is asked, “What is the most amazing thing about human life?” His answer is “That a man, seeing others die all around him, does not think that he will die.”


We are reminded of this regularly as tragedies abound in the world. From weather events to nuclear reactor meltdowns to the car accident that slows traffic to a respectful and curious processional, we are given many opportunities to consider our mortality. We pause for a moment in the face of death, but soon return to forgetting that it will soon be us.


In American culture, death is bad, and something to be avoided, along with gray hair, wrinkles, debility and old age. The elderly are undervalued and considered irrelevant. They are separate in the minds of the young, living in a place these same young believe they’ll never visit.


It’s normal, when youth, energy and hormones are surging, to, in the throes of one’s vitality, feel a little superior and to have difficulty imagining an ending to strength, or even to imagining an ending at all.


Endings, however, are how it’s supposed to be. One’s body wears out. One removes it, freeing one’s spirit to fly free to heaven, or maybe back to another turn in this world, another chance to get it right.


Contrary to popular opinion in America, that’s how it’s supposed to be.


People give up their lives all the time. Some do it taking risks such as speeding, motorcycle riding, mountain climbing, or extreme skiing. Others try drinking, drug overdoses, and gang warfare. Still others give their lives for cause, such as in military operations, in demonstrating against repressive governments, or in saving the lives of others. Are they expecting death as the outcome of their ventures? Probably not, although this certainly does not devalue the sacrifices so many make for others and for causes bigger than themselves.


A recent febrile illness, following on the heels of the diagnosis of potentially terminal cancer in two very close friends left me pondering the question of death, and how it would be.


The illness left me interested in only one thing, sleep. It took all other concerns away, from pending family visits to the state of the world. As I dragged myself home from work and sank into oblivion on my sofa, I wondered if this contentment with sinking into darkness would be how death felt. At that moment, there was nothing else for me.


Friends’ illnesses lead to thoughts of “how could this be happening? We are not old enough for this. There should be many more years ahead.” Maybe there will be. It won’t return anything to the way it was, back when we were all so busy taking things for granted.


The late Sri Eknath Easwaren, founder of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in Petaluma, CA, teaches that nothing is more important in life than learning to face death. He exclaims that there is too little time to quarrel, or to spend time accumulating things you can’t take with you. He could well add taking things so seriously, as if they were eternal instead of temporary.


What would it change to be aware daily of the temporary nature of life?


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